A hot wind blows the shaggy grass as Margaret Klassen leads a tour group to a patch of what looks almost like native prairie, turned yellow by clover.
“The clover is taking over,” she says.
On closer inspection, the mix of red and yellow clover, timothy and other grasses is growing in neat rows, not yet completely filled in between them.
This rectangular plot on the edge of Winkler’s Discovery Nature Sanctuary is a pollinator plot — a dedicated habitat for bees, butterflies and other pollinators.
Klassen planted it in the spring of 2018 as part of Operation Pollinator. On June 25, the Manitoba Conservation Districts Association hosted a tour of some of these sites in the province.
Operation Pollinator is a program run by seed and crop-care company Syngenta in partnership with the Soil Conservation Council of Canada. The program included recruiting landowners across Western Canada to seed up to two acres with plants that would provide pollinators with ideal habitats.
Pollinators like bees and bumblebees continue to suffer declines for reasons including habitat loss, pathogens and pesticides.
“Conservation efforts such as the creation of habitat are key to helping to enhance populations of pollinators such as bees and butterflies,” said Paul Hoekstra of Syngenta Canada.
Operation Pollinator has 34 participants in Manitoba and about 100 total in Western Canada. This is the third year of a three-year program, and now Syngenta is preparing to evaluate its success and decide how to move forward.
The company hired a consulting group of biologists to monitor plots across Western Canada, starting in 2018. Last year’s survey showed a positive impact on pollinator populations, Hoekstra said.
“We have about two to three times the number of bees and butterflies that were found in the Operation Pollinator plots compared to the control areas,” said Hoekstra. “We have two species of interest. The monarch butterfly and the yellow-banded bumblebee were only found in the Operation Pollinator plots and not the control sites during the monitoring period. So while this is only the first year of particular study, we’re encouraged with what we see so far.”
What’s not clear is if these plots, which are often on farms, are beneficial to anyone besides the bees.
This is something that entomologist Jason Gibbs of the University of Manitoba is looking to determine in a study just getting underway.
The study involves planting strips of pollinator habitat alongside fields, both organic and conventional.
“What we’re hoping is that we see that these plantings are being used by beneficial insects. That they’re not having a major effect on pests and that they’re not causing any sort of weed problems for owners,” said Gibbs.
Gibbs said there’s potential that the pollinator habitat strips will keep bees present and healthy in the fields, as well as boosting beneficial insects that can mitigate pest outbreaks. He said he expects the benefits to be small and incremental, but good for the land in the long run.
This is a five-year project, which is in its second year.
“I think we all share the goal of increasing biodiversity on agricultural lands,” Jim Tokarchuck of the Soil Conservation Council of Canada told tour participants on June 25. “We’re looking for people who are ambassadors for biodiversity.”
The Discovery Nature Sanctuary hosts school groups, that will have the chance to see the pollinator plot in action and enjoy the blooms.
Klassen said she intends to add more native Manitoba blossoms, like milkweed, to the mix of the plot to extend blooming time. This way, both bees and people will keep coming back.
“I think this will be an amazing place to, you know, keep on coming back throughout the summer because just the colour, the blossoms that you’re going to see throughout the summer are going to be so diverse that you’re going to want to come back.”